The Ministry of Poets

The Ministry of Poets

The Rev. Canon Dr. James M. McPherson

29 May 2016

 

Glorious music! Glorious stained glass!

Stained glass is an art form that has been around for centuries, for decoration and instruction. It’s a traditional important and powerful visual art form: light, colour, composition.[1]

Stained glass can be abstract as well as pictorial. Good art has the power to offer new insights, new interpretations, and to challenge/confront (think: political cartoons!).

Icons, too, are visual art; conceptually they are different. They also offer new insights to those prepared to enter their icon world, as stained glass does to those who gaze and ponder. Traditionally, one doesn’t “paint” an icon, but “write” it – using specified natural materials, and covering every stage of the process with prayer. Rowan Williams writes,

The point of the icon is to give us a window into an alien frame of reference that is at the same time the structure that will make definitive sense of the world we inhabit.[2]

In a nutshell, Rowan Williams has identified the core of creative religious art of all genres (art, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, liturgy, poetry, prose, right through to systematic theology!). Each genre in its way, through the crafting/performing skill, can open a window into the world beyond world and help us find and/or make sense of our everyday world and our being in it.

As a conscientiously religious poet, I find the writing itself requires serious skill and crafting, must be undertaken conscientiously and prayerfully, and must adhere to the canons and best standards of its discipline and through competent crafting, address those who are open to its impact. At its best, I hope it will engage, hold, and offer new insights to those prepared to enter its world…

By the way, for the purposes of definition, I am taking “religious” as consciously Christian and/or Jewish (because they are together our deep roots); gladly acknowledging also that atheists and sceptics and others may pursue themes in their work, from which faithful Christians can benefit.[3]

Did you notice Rowan Williams’ phrase “an alien frame of reference”? The icon is where the divine impinges on the terrestrial and breaks into it. “Alien” does not mean “hostile”; the window allows a view that makes “definitive sense” of the everyday and our life-experience. This has the same logic as the Incarnation: the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.[4] What could not be contained (the infinity of godhead) entered into and embodied grace within the finite constraints of our existence. This requires a wacky wisdom to perceive, way beyond the reach of earthbound “common sense”.

This is exactly what liturgy (at its best) does: opens us up to the broader context of God’s creation and creative purpose (“making definitive sense”), draws us into deeper understanding/appreciation, and engages us in God’s mission. This differs from “sacrament” – which is physical, involving material elements like water, bread, and wine; liturgy is corporeal – the resurrected Body of Christ corporeally localised in us (ekklesia).

Christian religious creative art (including liturgy) relies on the Incarnation in using the concrete physicality of the created order to open us up to God, deepen our intimacy with God, and engage us in God’s ultimate creation/resurrection project.

How do we “learn” and “know”? Broadly, I suggest “common sense” is merely the echo-chamber of the everyday, but it’s a start. Beyond the common-sense wisdom there is a wacky wisdom, best evidenced in clowns and prophets and “slant”. We will address these in tonight’s discussion. Suffice it to say that the deepest clowning persists despite setbacks, and models human dignity in the face of indignity and/or overwhelming power and that prophets (religious or not) are zealous for the truth, as deep as it comes, no matter what it costs. [5]

Pressing on: religious poetry can and should sometimes be the prophetic stone in liturgy’s comfortable slippers. At its prayerful best, liturgy is encounter with God, yet we have a persistent genius for wrecking it spiritually by tying God down. Witness the Athanasian Creed, surely the benchmark for clunky and prosaic imprisonment of God in rational categories and either/or logic.

Good poetry doesn’t close down, it opens out and good religious poetry allows God to be conceptually “untidy” without compromising the encounter or our knowing. Tidiness is our human obsession and speaks to our needs – not God’s. We simply don’t have the cosmic, let alone divine lens, through which to examine or dissect!

Religious poetry at its best addresses/describes God as lover, spouse; sometimes uses the imageries of guilt or humility triggered by encountering God (or God confronting us).[6] Religious poetry voices awe, fear, joy,devotion. It can write in anger and/or abject despair; with the desperation of hope; can even upbraid God for betrayal of trust … (they’re all there in the Psalms). The strongest religious poetry cannot be sanitised, whereas liturgy strives to be wholesome, clean, and supremely confident (except for the confession of sins). Adapting Hamlet’s memorable expression, the poetry of faith should “nothing extenuate, but in this harsh world draw its breath in pain to tell [the] story”.

Change the focus slightly. Liturgy focuses the communal wisdom born of real-world discipleship and draws spiritual strength for the “work-in-progress”. The religious poet says “this is how it is for me now, and this voice too must be acknowledged and recognised.” That’s prophetic (as “the prophetic stone in liturgy’s comfortable slippers”), because prophets are zealous for the truth, and declare it fearlessly.

Which brings me to hymns (religious poetry set to music for congregational use). Do I envy – or denounce – those hymn-writers for whom everything is lovely? Some may help us glimpse a cameo of the best discipleship has to offer, but unless they are written from the gritty reality of struggle, pain, fear, guilt and doubt, I cannot travel their perfumed and petalled verses.[7] I strive for the sort of poetry/hymnody that’s wrestled out of everyday discipleship. My hymn Mary, Daring Mother was written precisely because I have long been fascinated by the realities of her story. I wanted to acknowledge just how difficult perilous and uncharted her path was and honour her appropriately. Most Mary hymns I’ve ever encountered have been utterly sanitised and idealistic. Give me the real!

There is much more that could be said about hymnody. Brian Wren’s Praying Twice devotes a chapter to exploring how hymns “do” theology.[8]

For my part, I am honoured and humbled to have been called to this prophetic ministry. It stretches me, challenges me, humbles me. It has given me new life for my retirement and I value it as a great gift God has given me to help me mature and grow as a disciple and by God’s grace, be of service to others.

©Jim McPherson
May 2016

Image Red-headed Virgin by William Bustard, The Annunciation Window, St. Paul’s Church, Maryborough, Australia where Jim McPherson was Rector from 2008 to 2014.

[1] Sometimes a window can shock, with a new approach. St Paul’s, Maryborough has a set of William Bustard windows in its chancel, with the Virgin Mary unmistakably red-headed! I have no idea why …

[2] Rowan Williams (2000): Lost Icons p2.

[3] For the question of definition (of “religious poetry”), see the careful but brief discussion in Les Murray’s Foreword to his Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry, p xi: “Also, and obviously, the religion of artists is quite often art itself; a poet’s intense spiritual experience is apt to be bound up with writing poems. Art is anciently a part of religious activity, and is surely still at least continuous with it.”

[4] This played a role in the eighth and ninth century iconoclastic controversies in the Byzantine Church: supporters of icons pleaded the Incarnation against the second commandment’s prohibition of making “graven images”.

[5] Paul coined the scandalous expression “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18-25). I submit that only clowns and prophets show a comparable wacky wisdom. By clown I do not mean buffoonery and slapstick, but the “deep” clowning of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Johan Buziau; see my poems Slant and Circus Maximus (to be distributed at tonight’s discussion) for my use of the clown concept. See also Frederick Buechner (1977): Telling the Truth.  The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale Chapter III.

[6] Two of my favourite biblical examples: Isaiah 5.1-7 (poetry); 2 Samuel 12.1-15 (prose).

[7] The hymn “It is well with my soul” is one such exception, for the sake of its back-story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Is_Well_with_My_Soul. I cannot remember, however, when I last sang it – not since my Baptist days!

[8] Brian Wren (2000): Praying Twice. The Music and Words of Congregational Song. Chapter Ten, pp 349-377, is titled ‘“Echoes of the Gospel”: How Hymns Do Theology.’